One of the first thoughts that entered my head as I awoke this morning was to walk a labyrinth. And so I went. In the chilly air of this late-November, pre-first snowfall day, I took a slow journey on an outdoor labyrinth.
It’s been a few years since I walked a labyrinth. The last one was tucked into a lovely tree-lined courtyard downtown encircled by office towers, a church and a large shopping mall. I remember sitting and eating lunch one day at the perimeter of the maze, when I noticed a woman step onto the entrance stones. She went through the motions, following the twists and turns of the circuit – but her heart was clearly not into it: Continuously checking her watch, this power-walker repeatedly harrumphed while rushing to the finish. Was it her first time and she couldn’t believe how LONG it was taking? Or had she not paced herself to benefit from the journey? Either way, almost leaping over the stones, her sense of urgency was so palpable and such a sharp contrast to the purpose and intention of the activity that I couldn’t help but feel sorrow. What sense of peace could she have possibly gained in those harried minutes?
Based on the medieval design etched into the floor at Chartres Cathedral in France, the labyrinth is meant to be a sacred space, intended for slow walkers seeking an experience of meditation and introspection. Tied up with notions of peace and harmony, the Chartres Labyrinth has seen thousands of pilgrims passing through its doors along their spiritual journey.
Today, the labyrinth I meandered along is a small replica of the Chartres Labyrinth. It was erected six years ago on the front lawn of a church and the public is welcome to use it at all times. Other than a sign and plaque on the outside wall, it is an unremarkable site. Rain, snow and wear-and-tear have left their decaying mark on the inlaid bricks. Dried weeds, grass, moss and dried helicopter leaves (aka Norway maple tree seeds) jostle for space with tiny coloured glass beads. A couple of dried honeycombs lay abandoned nearby.
With every step, I try to erase from my mind the throbbing pain in my left foot. I concentrate on turns that cannot be anticipated, and from which I take care not to deviate. Like my life now, without too many firm plans, I just follow the path, trusting that it will lead me to the inner circle and right back out again.
Upon entering the center circle, I pay attention to each of the stones that have travelled from afar: Kosovo, Jerusalem, Northern Ireland and Kahnawake (an Indian reservation). All bastions of current and past conflict; all (then or now) in dire need of peace. According to the plaque mounted on the church wall, a stone from South Africa was last added in 2004, brought from the quarry where Nelson Mandela had laboured during his incarceration at Robben Island.
It is a relatively peaceful neighbourhood this Sunday morning. Every so often, I stop for a deep breath or a look around. And once in awhile, the silence is broken by the rumbling of a car, the thunderous boom of a plane overhead or the piercing sounds of a circular saw down the street. At one turn, I stop and look up at the street, just in time to make eye contact with a lone runner. Part of me so badly yearns to don my sneakers once more and find that zen-zone so familiar to longtime runners. I feel that momentary rush subside, and I move on to feeling blessed that my legs can still take me from here to there… until I can run again.
And then, in the midst of this somber grey morning, my focus shifts yet again as a fleet of cars arrives noisily to drop off a large contingent of church-goers. They are hard to miss, wearing some of the most brilliantly coloured dresses – native to their respective African countries, I presume – I have seen: Orange and purple wrap-around skirts, fiery red and brown head-wraps. Some wear sleeveless outfits and slip-on sandals, others are decked out in the full-length fur coats and stilettos. One woman jazzes up her native outfit with a fake designer bag and scarf. The spectacle of this unfolding scene is too hilarious to ignore, so I pause mid-step and smile as a boisterous driver, unloading bags from the trunk, waves to me with a smile and sings out a baritone hello. As the families head into church, I resume my walk.
Co-existence is the message that I carry into the rest of my spiraling journey on stones. It may be impossible to feel the anguish of people who live through ongoing civil war and conflict, but it is possible to feel solidarity and to pray for peace – inside and out.